The best managers can foster effective social work even when the culture of the organisation that employs them works against it, according to a report examining the characteristics of outstanding team leaders.
The Developing Outstanding Social Workers report was produced by Firstline, the in-development training programme that will seek to raise the quality of managers of social workers, to identify the qualities that enable social work bosses to be effective.
The report found that the best managers can act as a bulwark against wider organisational and external pressures that hamper the effectiveness of frontline social workers.
The very best leaders, the report said, “can create an energising climate for their teams that enables high performance, even when broader systemic conditions are challenging”.
Despite this, the report noted that some employers hold good leaders back by failing delegate authority, having unclear structures and leaving managers feeling that they will not be supported in their efforts to address poor performance.
Unstable and understaffed social work teams were also found to lead to managers spending their time firefighting rather than improving quality.
The report added that being a social work manager was more demanding than similar level posts in other professions and so required better training. “We have established this is a tough job; simply expecting individuals to step into this role without targeted leadership development is therefore risky,” it said.
Firstline found that outstanding team managers empower rather than rescue their staff, project an air of calm professionalism and feel confident in addressing poor performance. They also create space for reflective practice, define roles clearly and ensure their staff feel safe and in control.
Outstanding leaders are better able to “create a climate conducive to high performance, shield their social workers from contextual pressures and create higher aspirations than their good colleagues,” said the report.
Lack of influence
One area where even the best social work team leaders struggled, the report said, was in influencing those outside their teams.
“Even the best first-line leaders showed little focus on, or skill in, influencing peers, senior managers, elected members or partners in the wider context of their community,” said the report. “They were sometimes frustrated because they had not prepared the ground, understood organisational dynamics or built a relationship.”
Mary Jackson, director of Firstline, said: “The report clearly evidences that to lead and manage social workers well, one needs a range of skills, knowledge and abilities. This is not in itself news, but is not often clearly evidenced.
“Arguably the more powerful message is that really great social worker managers are able to lead their teams in a way that creates an excellent climate, even if they are not experiencing this themselves.
“This is a strongly affirming message for managers, who experience a renewed enthusiasm for the task once they see so clearly the impact they can have on social work practice and families.”